Industrial Food Continuing to Stack Deck?

Today’s New York Times included an article titled “Small farms fear bearing brunt of new food safety regulations” that caught my eye.  The headline alone was enough to make me cringe, but reading the actual content made it even worse.  Here is a taste of what you will read:

But small-scale farmers say the big companies have the funds and staff to comply with the rules, and that factory farms that specialize in mass-producing one item are better positioned to comply with mandates to establish food safety plans for every product they sell.

“A small farm is much more likely to grow multiple things and have a diversified approach,” Lavera (Assistant Director, Food and Water Watch) said. “So if they have to take 19 steps for each of those crops, it’s much harder for them than a large farm that only grows one or two things.”

Small farmers argue that they are already much more accountable to their customers for the quality of their product than are mass-production facilities, and that they will be crushed under the weight of well-meaning laws aimed at large industrial offenders.

As my post yesterday highlighted, the food marketing system (a.k.a., industrial food) has been systematically shifting more of every dollar spent by consumers on food into their pockets, especially since 1980.  Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if they were producing food products positively contributing to our health, the environment, and regional economic development. That is not happening, at least not in most cases.  Now, as if to add insult to injury, industrial food may be jumping on the opportunity to further burden smaller farms through new food safety regulations.

The challenge is how to ensure food safety for all consumers without severely limiting the diversity of where our food comes from.  Given the complexity of the industrial food system, which includes many steps and lots of hands touching mass produced food, there is no doubt that food safety is a very real problem that needs more regulation.  But smaller farms, especially those that sell direct to consumers or one-step removed through regional distributors, do not present the same problems, so it makes no sense to impose on them something designed for the more complex system. Again, from the New York Times article:

“The law requires that a food safety plan be written up and that the farms keep a record of the way it is administering the plans,” said Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director of the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit advocacy group. “If it was scale appropriate and was mashed in with organic standards, it would be fine. But it’s not.”

Do smaller producers represent risks to consumer?  I think it would be naive to say they don’t.  Do they need to be regulated and monitored regarding food safety?  I believe most people giving this question some thought would say yes, but only if such regulations are designed for the local and regional food systems that many smaller farms operate within.

 

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5 responses to “Industrial Food Continuing to Stack Deck?

  1. WOW! Thanks for this tasty piece of information. I am glad that I found you on Twitter. I can always count on you for some helpful and interesting facts. Thanks for all your hard work!

  2. And that’s not the only article in the Times dealing with food saftey either today:

    Perchlorate found in infant formula — CDC: http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2009/04/03/03greenwire-perchlorate-found-in-infant-formula–cdc-10432.html

  3. This is already an big issue and likely to get worse with these new bills as well as NAIS (http://NoNAIS.org) which heavily burden small farmers while only really designed to benefit exporters (and tag makers).

    These problems have already forced our family farm to focus on just one species for sale. Because of the complications with dealing with the sale of different animals, labeling, etc we just raise pastured pigs for sale. We co-graze them with chickens (who provide insect control), sheep (who provide brush control) and ducks (for mosquito & slug control) but it is only the hogs that we sell. It just isn’t profitable to sustain all the different systems that it would take to have the other animals in quantities necessary for sale at a level that pays us our labor.

    • Thank you, Walter, for your important and thoughtful comment on this post.

      Hearing directly from farmers about how they are being impacted by legislation is critical to these discussions, since most of us, myself included, have limited first hand experience. I hope you will continue enlightening me and my readers, and please feel free to invite others to join the discussion.

      Cheers,

      Rob Smart

  4. (Over on the lunch money post I had tried posting this before but it didn’t seem to go through so I’m trying here. Sorry if this is a duplicate. This does have some edits and updates.)

    We are faced with the fact that we only get a very small part of the price paid for our meat. The retailer takes 50% to put our meat on their shelf so consumers can find it. The store must be maintained, employees paid, electric bills, etc. But first the butcher takes another 25% to 40% – prepaid. The little we keep must cover all our costs and pay us a wage. Scary but doable as long as everything else works…perfectly.

    This winter the slaughterer & the butcher and smokehouse raised their prices on us, without notice, by 24% and 36% respectively. Our commercial customers require a minimum of three weeks notice on price changes and it takes a week to notify them. This meant that we lost all our profits for a month. Imagine your boss not paying your for a whole month but you still had to work. But it is worse. They did it retrospectively for the meat we had already delivered. We didn’t find out until we went to pick it up and pay the bill. Since they have a near monopoly, and our meat, we have no choice. If we don’t pay them they keep our meat and our customers are inconvenienced. Imagine you already did the work for a month, spent the grocery money, paid your rent and still don’t get that pay check plus the boss gave you a pay cut and he expects you to show up tomorrow morning for more abuse. Life’s an adventure.

    On top of that we never know if the processors will be in business next week. We’ve seen three others go out of business in the last four years. Our state, like most, is bleeding slaughterhouses and butchers at a deadly rate. Without processing we can’t get pork to fork. This hurts small farmers and ultimately consumers. Wither the small farms go goes the infra-structure for farming and all the jobs that support it.

    We have demand. That isn’t a problem. What we need is the ability to reliably get our farm’s product (grass/whey fed pork) to consumers. For this reason our family is planning to open our own inspected on-farm slaughterhouse and butcher shop. We’ve been working with our state department of agriculture and the USDA for the last year. We’ve been training in commercial meat cutting for the last nine months. Now I’m working on financing. Vertical integration is the only way we can make farming work. It isn’t just about the money. We must have security for our farm, and thus our family. We need to own and control the processing facility so we know it will be there in six months, a year, ten years. Without that we’re at the processors’ whims.

    As a big side benefit, having inspected on-farm processing means our livestock won’t have to be transported every week on that long multi-hour trip. That’s less stress and more humane for the animals which means better quality meat for consumers. It also means six hours less driving per week for us thus saving gas and greenhouse emissions.

    The reports I’ve read talk about a facility costing millions of dollars. They are thinking too big. We need more smaller processors. I can build a state of the art facility for 10% of that. We have land, an existing foundation, are only doing one species (pigs) and only for our farm. This keeps the costs down and reduces the regulatory hurdles. Our pay back period is less than five years. This can be done by other farms freeing up slots at the existing processors which helps even more farmers. Think small. Think many. Think dispersed. That is what we need for food and farm security.

    For the past year I’ve been working with the USDA and VTDA on this. We have completed our initial HACCP plans, plant layout and business plan. My wife, our son and I have been training in commercial meat cutting with a master butcher for the last nine months. We’re ready to commence construction as soon as our snow is gone. What we need is help with funding. It’s the next step in the process.

    Getting from here to there is a challenge. We’ll make it. We have to.

    Cheers,

    -Walter
    Sugar Mountain Farm LLC
    Pastured Pigs
    in the mountains of Vermont

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